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How Mary Wollstonecraft Set The Feminist Ball Rolling With This Seminal Text

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If someone were to ask you, “where did feminism start?”, you would instantly think of the early 20th century Suffragettes. Though that’s not technically wrong, truth is, the seeds of feminism were sown way earlier—atleast, of Western feminism—with Mary Wollstonecraft. Her book, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (The name’s a mouthful, I know, but I’m here to break it down for you!), published in 1792, is one of the first documented treatises on women’s rights.

Who Was This Wollstonecraft, and Why Is She Such a Big Deal?

Prolific writer, philosopher, women’s rights advocate, intellectual—Mary donned a wide variety of hats. Born in 1759 in London, and brought up by an abusive father, she left home and dedicated herself to a life of writing: an extremely unconventional choice to make, considering the time she was living in was hardly kind to women who thought independently (more on that later). She briefly worked as a governess, and in 1781, she made history by establishing a school (along with her best friend, Fanny) in Newington Green which admitted both men and women, studying alongside each other—a truly revolutionary feat. She advocated for equal rights way before it even became a topic of discussion, and laid down her various progressive ideas in The Vindication, which was published in 1792.

The 18th Century Treated Its Women Horribly, And Mary Was Having None of That!

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” 

The Vindication has a seemingly simple goal: to explain how men and women are, ultimately, equal beings and deserve equal rights. This argument sounds almost basic now, at a time when the debate about equality and diversity has become common fare, but at the time Wollstonecraft was writing, the very suggestion was tremendously subversive. In the eighteenth century, the political, social, and economic spheres were dominated largely by men, and women were either relegated to the household, performing domestic tasks, or into (in most cases, involuntary) sex work. They were rarely admitted into educational institutions or professional jobs, and even when they were, they were hardly given any respect or proper remuneration. In such an intensely patriarchal society, women were only seen either as sexual objects, or as childbearers and childrearers. No wonder Wollstonecraft felt the need to write about women’s rights!

What’s brilliant about this book, is how so many of the things Wollstonecraft talked about way back in 1792 are still relevant today, and here’s how:

1: In Which She Stresses The Importance of Women’s Education

“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.” 

As we can see from the establishment of her own school, our Mary was pretty passionate about imparting education—and an equal, unbiased education, that too. A woman’s right to education, to equal access to educational institutions as men is something that she stresses constantly through the book. In fact, she devotes her entire Introduction to discussing the issue of women’s education in great detail, and links women’s subjugation to patriarchy to a lack of incisive education which would equip them to think independently and challenge their oppression. Due to a lack of education, women aren’t often aware that they are being undermined and silenced, and ultimately, lack the tools to “vindicate” their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Her idea of educational reform is a recurring one throughout the book, and in fact, the solution she offers for a better, equal world where women can finally get the rights they deserve, is to have free and equal education for both men and women (We forgive her for thinking in gender binaries, it being the eighteenth century and all). In fact, she even brings in parenthood, and talks about how better education will make women into better parents, who will be equipped to educate their children to challenge harmful social constructs. Again, it’s slightly problematic how she still puts the woman in the nurturing role, but I still sort of understand what she means. She also called for equal opportunities for women in male-dominated fields such as politics, science, trade, and so on; all concerns that still remain with us in our contemporary times.

2: In Which She Calls Out Ridiculous Beauty Standards, And Gender Roles

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” 

Centuries before feminist critics like Judith Butler and Betty Friedan, Wollstonecraft called out the unhealthy standards of beauty and desirability patriarchy imposes on women, pointing out how women are required to dress up and look a certain way due to a deep-rooted harmful social conditioning. She talks about how, from a very young age, women are taught that their looks are of utmost concern, and that the only way to please others is to cultivate weakness and artificiality. She also brings marriage into the mix, talking about how the same harmful conditioning teaches women to remain in unhappy, and even abusive marriages, because they are taught to indulge the men in their lives, to depend on them, and to never question them. This kind of female dependence, which encourages women’s confinement in the domestic sphere and inability to participate in the public sphere is extremely unhealthy and has a deeply negative effect on female psychology. Wollstonecraft wants to change that, to help women question and break free from their oppression, and inspire a “revolution in female manners.”

3: In Which She Challenges Sexual, Moral, and Body Policing

“And this homage to women’s attractions has distorted their understanding to
such an extent that almost all the civilized women of the present century are anxious only to inspire love, when they ought to have the nobler aim of getting respect for their abilities and virtues.” 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

She further goes on to tackle important feminist issues such as sexual and body policing in chapters seven and eight, when she talks about the patriarchal notion of female “modesty”. A “modest” woman, in the eighteenth century sense, is she who conforms, who exhibits desire and autonomy only in the way patriarchy dictates them to—but Wollstonecraft is having none of this! She is highly critical of this kind of moral, sexual, and body policing, and says that if women are meant to be chaste, then men should be chaste too! But what’s really revolutionary for the time she was writing in, was Wollstonecraft’s urge for women to be financially independent and to participate in the public and political sphere. Like I mentioned earlier, these spheres were exclusively reserved for men at the time, and to talk about all this in 1792 required tremendous courage!

4: In Which Her White Feminism Is Showing (No One is Perfect)

“They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.” 

Often, the language she uses to talk about women’s subjection to patriarchy takes on the slave-master narrative, which is deeply problematic considering slavery was a big thing during the period, and British imperialism was at its peak, which means, a lot of women of colour all over the world were battling the dual subjugation of both patriarchy as well as actual, physical slavery and racism. By excluding their experiences, and focusing on mostly middle-class white women’s rights, she denies the existence of womanhoods that are different from her immediate social strata—which is kinda not cool. But again, we have to remember that this was the eighteenth century, and aeons before intersectionalism even being considered by feminist critics, so I guess we have to keep that in mind.

But she does make one good point—of involving men in the fight for equal rights. Once she has shown that women’s rights are perfectly rational and infact, extremely necessary, Wollstonecraft devotes her conclusion to urging men to come forward and advocate for equality, because without the help of both genders, true equality can’t be achieved. I give her brownie points for this initiative, even though her language is coated in racism.

In Conclusion, Mary Was Kinda Swell

Like mentioned earlier, Wollstonecraft apprehended so many different feminist issues before they even began being discussed properly, and that’s what makes this text so important and universally relevant. Before there were the suffragettes, before there were feminist slogans like “We Can Do It!’ and ‘The Personal is Political!’, there was good old Mary, dropping truth bombs and smashing the patriarchy like never before. Wollstonecraft more or less laid the foundation for Women’s Studies and Feminist theory as we know it today, and has become the starting point for studying Western feminism. Sadly, but predictably, her work received a lot of backlash from (you guessed it right) the straight white men in society, and people were more interested in how she ‘scandalously’ gave birth to two children out of wedlock. But that didn’t stop her legacy from becoming a lasting one, and her work went on to massively inspire the Suffragette movements in both Europe and the United States. So let’s raise a toast to good ol’ Mary, and not write her off as old news!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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